Brooklyn comes how, but stops at every Broadway show on the way
The consolation prize for sitting through “Brooklyn the Musical” is that you will never have to see another revival ever—you will have seen them all in under two hours.
It seems that creators Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPhershon (book, music and lyrics) have flung every show ever written into one huge Hefty bag, given a good shake and scattered the contents willy-nilly onto the stage of the Plymouth Theatre.
We have the waif-like girl looking for a daddy (“Annie,” “Mamma Mia!”); the African-American pop diva (“Dreamgirls”); down-at-heels-but-adorable young people (“Rent”) who tell a story not about them (“Side Show”); a guilt-ridden Viet Nam vet who abandoned a child (“Miss Saigon”); an African-American narrator who also takes part in the plot (“Pippin”); a fairy godmother (“Cinderella”) and a winner-take-all song contest (the high-brow “Die Meistersinger” and the reality-based “American Idol”). Sprinkle in a little Brecht and Weill social commentary, and you’ve got most of the plot.
The score is equally messy, sounding like 50 years of musical and pop writing thrown into a blender and rendered into a slurry of derivative, pastiche and emotionally vacuous pop-rock-show tunes. You’ll hear quotes from Sondheim, Bernstein and even Andrew Lloyd Webber. What you won’t hear is anything memorable or an original song or have anything approaching an authentic emotional experience.
In fact, taken all together, “Brooklyn the Musical” represents a huge step backward for the musical form, having more in common with shows from the early 20th century in which a flimsy, familiar plot is the barest excuse for stringing together a variety of songs. “Brooklyn the Musical” might work if it did this well, but it does not. It falls prey to the emphasis of style over substance, and while the performers rip into and through the numbers, to a person they never make any human connection to the story, and the result is technical proficiency that one can appreciate but that ultimately leaves you cold.
Eden Espinosa plays Brooklyn (yes, that’s her name) who has somehow become a pop diva in France. She returns to Brooklyn to find her father who abandoned her. Though she’s 20-something, her mother, who just died (“Bambi”) never bothered to tell her his name. Brooklyn ends up in a song contest, for some also never-explained reason, with diva Paradice, played by Ramona Keller, which will take place at Radio City Music Hall. Because this is a “true fairy tale,” Brooklyn loses. And then the show kind of winds down, and since it can’t bother to make a coherent plot, I can’t be bothered to recount it. It ends with a “diva-off,” and then you get to go home.
Espinosa can sing, after a fashion. She can—thanks to heavy miking—slam a song to the back wall of the theater in that overwrought style that’s been popularized on “American Idol,” but what she can’t do is express a single believable emotion, not that there’s one in the score for her to convey.
Keller, on the other hand, walks away with the show, giving the most believable performance, even of the most unsavory character. At least there’s something, however insubstantial, for her to sink her teeth into.
The other members of the ensemble do fairly well. Kevin Anderson is the pained, cross-addicted father who wrote the lullaby that is Brooklyn’s only clue to finding him. His voice is inconsistent, and he’d be lost without the sound system. Karen Olivo is fairly good as Faith, Brooklyn’s mother, though hampered by the feeble material. Cleavant Derricks as Streetsinger is very strong, the most solid presence, though his material is terrible. When he’s dressed in a flowing robe (“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) and spreading around fairy dust (“Peter Pan”), it was impressive to see him make something of such a pile of trash.
Speaking of which, trash, real garbage, has been the inspiration for the design elements of the show. The amazing set is a detailed collage of urban decay under the Brooklyn Bridge—obviously this takes place before the area was gentrified—and remarkable for its creative use of materials and found objects. The costumes by Tobin Ost, notably gowns made of black trash bags and white plastic grocery bags and a stole made completely of stuffed animals, are beyond fantastic. When the rest of the show wants to lull you into a pleasant snooze, it’s the design that keeps you on the edge of your seat—and that’s a degree of compensation, but not nearly enough, for an otherwise disappointing evening.
If you have ever wanted to knock the pompous self-importance out of CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, then “Kenneth—What is the Frequency?” is the show for you. But it’s also much more than that.
This is an antic allegory about fame and competition in America, the freakishness of fate and the sense of self-importance that otherwise inconsequential things, like reporting on a hurricane, can generate. Playwright Paul Allman has used as his metaphor the never-explained attack on Rather in which the assailants kept asking “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” and stirred in the conspiracy theory that the attack was really planned by post-modern novelist Donald Barthelme. You kind of have to go with it.
It is bizarre, funny and thought-provoking and the performances by Toby Wherry as Mr. Rather and Lawrence E. Bull as Donald Bartheme, who spends most of the time on stage on a cooking show making a stew called Burgoo, are lively and engaging. The play is particularly delightful now given how the news on the major networks have become a kind of absurd reflection of what may pass for reality at some point.
“Two Brothers Who are Not Brothers” is not really a play at all. With the major events of the story happening either before the show begins or offstage and major characters never appearing but only referred to, the show by Paul Rawlings becomes a tedious talkfest that never really gets off the ground and we never know why we should care about the characters and so instead tune out.
The two-man cast—Joe Thompson and John Jimerson—is quite good. Both men have charm, focus and presence. It will be good to see them in something more
worthy of their talents in the future.